Downton Abbey, the movie version, is a very good season premiere and season finale of Downton Abbey rolled into one, multiplex-accessible-only, two-hour package. If this sounds like an insult it’s not meant to be. The ideal case scenario for this addendum to the enormously popular period piece, which ended its six-season stateside run on PBS in 2016, is a supersized episode of Downton Abbey that is enjoyable and substantial enough to justify its existence. The film, written by series creator Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler, who directed multiple episodes of the TV original, is exactly that.
If you were a regular Downton Abbey viewer, you’ll likely feel satisfied by this motion picture experience, which brings back nearly all of the show’s key characters, bumps up the production value a few notches for the big screen, and structures its one-off story around a special visit from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). If you weren’t a regular Downton Abbey viewer, honestly, I can’t imagine you’re going to go see this movie.
The filmmakers can’t imagine it either, which is why Downtown resumes its British aristocratic action in the fall of 1927, just shy of two years after the events of the series finale, and makes no attempt to provide exposition or background to anyone who may be unfamiliar with the members of the Crawley family or the staff who serves them. It’s a smart, efficient move, and appropriate for a work so fixated on politeness and protocol. Downton Abbey assumes you already know the rules of this society and therefore doesn’t need to bother explaining them.
The movie opens with the arrival of a fateful letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that the royals will visit Downton, an occasion that will involve a parade and a dinner. (When you’re the King and Queen of England, I guess it’s completely fine to invite yourself over to other people’s houses?) This news causes much excitement and stress among the downstairs staff, all of whom must determine how to feed and attend to the monarchs. That includes good ‘ol Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), still in charge of the kitchen and working alongside the pleasantly contrary Daisy (Sophie McShera); ultra-practical head housekeeper Mrs. Carson (Phyllis Logan), formerly known as Mrs. Hughes; and Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), who has taken over as butler in the wake of Carson’s retirement. In a way, Thomas has also retired in that he’s (mostly) stopped being an asshole.
Of course when Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) perceives that Thomas may be slightly jittery about the high-stakes royal social call, she goes to see Carson and pulls him out of retirement to temporarily take over butler duties. (Remember how Carson retired because he was suffering from palsy? Literally no one mentions that this happened or that it could be an issue if he returns to work.) But any bad feelings between Carson and Thomas are immediately overshadowed by the conflict between the royal staff, overseen by a snobby and rude head butler, or Page of the Backstairs as he prefers to be called, played by David Haig. When the Downton regulars are told that their services won’t be needed once the servants of the king and queen are on the premises, a tug-of-war for power — power, in this case, being the permission to carry trays of food to the uppermost members of Britain’s privileged class — ensues.
But there’s more, and by more, I mean all of the things you’ve been conditioned to expect from Downton Abbey: close-ups of wine being poured through cloths; Carson saying things like, “There must be no tomfoolery” and “This is most inappropriate”; concerns (still!) about whether Tom Branson (Allen Leech), former Irish revolutionary and loyal member of the Crawley family, will be able to control his political impulses; close-ups of clocks being wound; Thomas wrestling with his homosexuality; a subplot about items that have gone missing from the Downton household; conversations about whether a traditional estate like Downton can still exist in a changing England; concerns about an inheritance (Imelda Staunton plays Lady Maud Bagshaw, a cousin of Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Robert Grantham who is his closest blood relation but does not plan to make him her heir); and an overenthusiastic Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who rejoins the Downton staff to help with royal preparations, completely mucking up in the most embarrassing way possible. Oh, and yes, before you ask: Dame Maggie Smith is very present as the Dowager Countess, who is not happy about that whole inheritance situation involving her son and plans to make an issue of it. Also, yes, she and her bestie Isobel (Penelope Wilton) are still constantly snipping at each other and, yes again, Granny still is not shy about sharing her opinions. (“Machiavelli is underrated,” she says at one point. She does not seem to be joking.)
Story-wise, Downton Abbey reinvents no wheels, but that’s just fine. There is a comfort and a pleasure in simply being with these characters again and marinating in their lives, where everything seems very high-stakes but, for the most part, isn’t really. Plus, everything looks even more beautiful than it did on television. There are more wide shots of autumnal leaves falling on the lush green of the Crawleys’ estate and extra magic in the magic-hour shots captured beautifully by cinematographer Ben Smitherd. Even the costumes, designed by Anna Robbins, who made the clothes such a signature of the series, pop off the screen with more texture and beading that sparkles a bit more brightly.
Because the cast is so large and there is a fair amount of story to cover, Downton Abbey bounces around quite quickly from moment to moment, giving some characters shorter shrift than others (sorry, fans of Mr. Bates) and dropping some pretty major plotlines, including an assassination attempt, rather swiftly to move on to other things. But the show always operated this way, too, and regulars will reacclimate pretty quickly to its rhythms. There are a couple of bombshells — one minor, one major — that get dropped that make it clear that Fellowes is still genuinely interested in creating new stories about these beloved characters as opposed to purely going for a recent-TV nostalgia play. There’s a scene between Smith and Dockery late in the film, in particular, that aims straight at the tear ducts and hits a bull’s eye.
Downton Abbey, the series, has only been gone for a little more than three years. But that’s just enough time to make its return very welcome, and to make this feel like the right moment to usher it back into the zeitgeist again. How nice to spend a couple of hours in a world where manners matter and the nastiest word anyone says is “bloody.” How lovely to immerse oneself in an England where Boris Johnson is not an authority figure and where the crassest American is Elizabeth McGovern in a tiara. How pleasurable to once again escape to this thoroughly ridiculous, richly rendered place and live there, if only for a couple of hours until the credits roll.